Horseman, Pass By: Larry McMurtry RIP

Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Acts 2:17

Celebrated author Larry McMurtry passed away at age 84 on March 25. (Read obituaries and reminiscences about him herehere, and here.) We will not see his like again. The world that produced him, a world where the cowboy culture was still remembered, a world where what he called “the book culture” flourished, is gone.

McMurtry was a man torn between his attachments to the place and people from whence he came and his impulse to escape them. He once wrote of his ambivalence about his origins as running “deep as the bone.” Larry McMurtry was born into a Texas ranching family. The world he knew as a boy was, as he sometimes lamented, a largely bookless one. He would eventually become a voracious reader. Books, the writing and collecting of them, would be his life. McMurtry observed more than once that he was only a passable horseman, and it was clear that he was not made for ranch life. He was meant for other things.

Larry McMurtry would wander far from his home in Archer City, Texas, but he kept coming back. When he had achieved fame and fortune as a writer, he filled the once practically bookless town with books of all kinds. Even after he sold off more than half his holdings in 2012, between his bookstore and his private collection, McMurtry still had about 200,000 volumes to his name. He once remarked that the “culture of the book” was a “wonderful culture, which we mustn’t lose.” McMurtry was dedicated to the survival of that culture.

McMurtry occasionally remarked that his intent in writing Westerns was to “de-mythologize” the West, and he sometimes went out of his way to subvert that myth. But what the author of Lonesome Dove actually accomplished was the revitalization of the myth by bringing it closer to the earth, out of the realm of stylized cowboys and sanitized versions of the conquest of the West. His Western protagonists, especially Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrea, were nonetheless heroic, perhaps more so, by being all too human. He once commented that the cowboy was a tragic figure who could not acknowledge his own tragedy, but aided others in creating the Western myth.

Whatever his misgivings about the life he simultaneously criticized and eulogized in his writing, it was clear that McMurtry respected those men. Like many of us, something tells me that part of him longed to be like them, to have seen the world that they rode through, even knowing what it cost. Texas Monthly‘s Jeff Salamon once noted that in Lonesome Dove, the deep and abiding friendship between Call and Gus is juxtaposed with the emotional conflicts they experience over tender feelings for women and, in Call’s case, his unacknowledged illegitimate son. Yet something powerful in the emotionally limited character of men like Call and Gus haunts us like an unsated desire. 

The epigraph to Lonesome Dove is drawn from T.K. Whipple’s Study Out the Land:

“All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.”

McMurtry loved the American West. “The West,” he once said, “is mostly a very beautiful place. There are all those lovely spaces. There are all those running horses. It’s a poetic imagery and it’s been there for a long time.”

McMurty recalled that his father “loved cowboys.” “That,” said McMurtry, “got him through his life. But he knew perfectly well, so did we, that it wouldn’t last another generation, it just was not going to last.” Much of McMurtry’s Western writing was elegiac, even wistful. In his debut novel, Horseman, Pass By, the aging rancher Homer Bannon clashes with his stepson, Hud. The old man is the embodiment of the roughhewn integrity McMurtry obviously associated with men like him. His son is the new, modern West. For him, integrity is just another item for sale. The epic cattle drive of Lonesome Dove is part of the closing act of a Homeric age nearing its end, something the novel’s protagonists are well aware of. The Last Picture Show chronicled the demise of a small town. Fittingly, the last film shown at the town’s movie theatre before it closes is a Western.

At the end of HorsemanPass By, Lonnie, Homer’s grandson, attends the old man’s funeral. After the church service, he thinks “of the horseman that had passed,” a reference to a poem by Yeats:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!

Those words are the epitaph on Yeats’s tombstone. 

Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor for Chronicles Magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel Field of Blood   

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